Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Do you like the smell of sheep? And because most of us are townies (I think?), I should tell you that I don’t mean the smell of lamb chops in the frying pan or a lamb roast in the oven. When you are out at the farm, do you like the smell of sheep? And some of you might say, Yes! while others say, No! But of course, it’s not the smell of sheep that you need to keep an eye out for when you are walking around a sheep paddock, is it. There are other realities of sheep that you need to be wary of! And I am sure you all know what I mean
But if you are familiar with the Bible, you will know that the Bible describes Christians as sheep. And this is not a flattering image but it is quite accurate. As one commentator says, “Christians are messy people. Our lives are filled with brokenness, waste, trouble, and sticky situations. We are timid, and we sometimes wander.” Spiritually, as Isaiah 5:6 says, “We all like sheep have gone astray; each one of us has turned to his own way.”
And the chief implication of us being sheep-like is that we need a SHEPHERD. We need someone who knows what to do with sheep; how to care for us and protect us. We need someone who can navigate through our mess and keep us on safe and straight paths.
And that of course brings us, first and foremost, to PSALM 23. For there we read this about our God: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want … He leads me … [His rod] and [staff], they comfort me.”
And those words thrust us forward to JOHN 10 where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd … He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them … I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me … and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
So Jesus is our ultimate shepherd. But one of the ways that He shepherds us is by those He appoints as our elders. And we see this in the words written to elders in the passage before us this afternoon: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you…”
Well, the Lord has again provided us with men willing to serve Him and His people in this way. We have already heard some words about the work of the elders in the form we read together. But let’s spend some time thinking about the specific instructions given to elders in these verses. For here THE SHEPHERDS ARE TOLD WHAT GODLY SHEPHERDING LOOKS LIKE. And we simply consider the COMMAND GIVEN to the elders and then the CHARACTERISTICS REQUIRED of the elders. And we will end with a few words about what I call the CONCOMITANT. And I will explain that word when we get there.
So firstly then, the COMMAND GIVEN to the elders. And we read it in v2a, “Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight.” So the command is to shepherd by exercising oversight.
1. So let’s think a little bit more about SHEEP to help us think about how to shepherd by exercising oversight.
A. You boys and girls might be familiar with the story of Lassie? Or other animals who found their way back home after travelling long distances. Well, a sheep doesn’t have to wander very far before it is totally lost. And Jesus spoke about this in the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15.
B. In addition, if sheep stray from the paddock, they will soon start eating whatever they find where they are, which could include good food but also even poisonous plants. They can soon overgraze their paddock also or ruin their own paddock with their own waste.
C. And sheep need a supply of water that is not impure or too hot or too cold.
D. And of course, their wool keeps growing and it is quite oily so it needs to be shorn or they can get really filthy and even quite sick.
E. And lastly, because of their largely passive nature, sheep are pretty easy pickings for any predator. They are virtually defenceless. When you boys need to choose an animal to pretend to be in a game you are playing with you friends, you choose lions or tigers or wolves or Tyrannosaurus Rexes, right? No one chooses to be a sheep!
F. So Shepherds need to make sure the sheep get good food and clean water. They also need to keep them from straying away. Shepherds need to shear the sheep of the stuff that clings to them but is unhelpful. And Shepherds need to protect sheep from predators.
2. And as we think about all this in terms of the elders who shepherd the flock, let’s start with the APOSTLE PETER himself. You boys and girls might remember that Peter denied Jesus three times on the night of his arrest. So after Jesus rose, He had a conversation with Peter. And you can be sure that that conversation was very prominent in Peter’s mind as he wrote these words here in 1 Peter. Jesus said to Peter, three times, “Peter, do you love me?” And three times, Peter responded with a “Yes.” But do remember what Jesus said after each of Peter’s responses? He said, twice, “Feed my lambs,” and once, “Feed my sheep.” Peter was to be an apostle but also an elder, as we see from v1 where he calls himself a “fellow elder” of the elders he was writing to. And a chief task of his as an elder, if not the chief task, was to feed the sheep.
A. And what does this mean? Well, it means TO TEACH THEM BIBLICAL TRUTH. The Bible is, after all, the Word of Jesus – the Good Shepherd. It reveals Jesus and it instructs and encourages and exhorts and comforts and warns and promises. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” The elders feed the sheep by teaching them the Bible.
i. And they do that by making sure it is done faithfully from the pulpit. We read of that earlier in the form. They are to “carefully oversee … the ministry of the Word.”
ii. But they do this also in your home when they come and visit you.
iii. They do this when they send a card with words of encouragement from Scripture.
iv. They do this from beside your hospital bed.
v. They do this in cafes, one to one or with a small group they are discipling.
vi. They do this over a cuppa in the back hall after church.
vii. They do this on the phone when you call them to seek their advice.
viii. They do this by alerting you to useful events to attend like the Men’s Christian Convention of this past week or the Stand for the Gospel conference of 2 months ago or the upcoming Women’s Christian Convention.
ix. Elders are to feed the sheep with biblical truth. And this is such an important part of the elders’ work that in EZEKIEL 34, where the Lord rebukes the leaders of Israel for being delinquent or crooked shepherds, His first complaint is that they have not been feeding the sheep. Elders are to feed the sheep with biblical truth.
3. But let’s think a little bit more about this idea of “EXERCISING OVERSIGHT.” Literally, the Greek word used here means to ‘have scope over.’ If you were to try and draw a picture of the elder/shepherd, it should be of a man with spiritual binoculars who constantly sweeps his gaze over the flock, always on the look out for trouble.
A. And you might hear that and think that that just sounds a little negative. But that is the emphasis of scripture.
i. One of the most famous sheep and shepherd passages of scripture is found in ACTS 20 where the Apostle Paul is talking to the elders of the Ephesian congregation. And what you don’t read there is some poetic description of cuddly and fluffy, care-free sheep casually strolling about in the safety of a sun-drenched paddock while the shepherd lies in the sun chewing on a stalk of grass. There is an intensity to Paul’s words to these elders that fair drips off the page. He urges them to pay attention to the flock, or to be watchful. He warns them that savage wolves will come in to trouble the flock, and that trouble-makers will also arise from within the congregation. So again he says, “Be alert.”
ii. And later in EPHESIANS 4, we read that the Lord Jesus has given elders to the church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” that we might become mature believers. But note the reason why this so as Paul continues, “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Left to ourselves, you see, we will be carried about by every wind of doctrine. So the Lord gives us elders to feed us and to exercise oversight.
a. That is why we have fellowship groups with an assigned elder or two.
b. That is why we believe in the importance of elders visiting people in their homes.
c. That is why if you are not at Lord’s Supper or at church for a couple of Sundays, your elder will call you to see if all is well.
d. That is why your elder will ‘be on your case’ about not attending Bible study or the second service.
e. That is why your elder might question you about something you liked on Facebook or an article you posted online.
f. That is why your elder will come and confront you about sinful behaviour.
g. And that is why we have elders assigned to liaise with all of the groups of the church to be involved in decisions about new Bible study material or appointing new committee members, for example. For this too is a part of how they exercise oversight.
The Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. And He shepherds us by giving us elders who feed us with biblical truth and who safeguard us from false teaching and who admonish us when we are straying from the path of good doctrine or right living. I trust you can see then that our brothers Paul and Neville, along with the other elders, have an enormous responsibility. But our trust is not ultimately in the elders themselves but in the Lord who has chosen to look after us through men like them. He is the one who calls them and equips them. So let us be at prayer for them, often.
The COMMAND GIVEN to the elders, then, is to shepherd the flock by exercising oversight. But secondly, we see also the CHARACTERISTICS REQUIRED of the elders.
And they are given in a series of three ‘not like this but like this’ statements in vv2b-3. By the insight of the Holy Spirit and by his observation of elders at work, Peter knows that there are basically two ways to exercise oversight. The wrong way is by compulsion, for shameful gain, and/or by domineering over those in your charge. The right way is willingly, eagerly, and being an example to the flock. So let’s consider each of these pairs:
1. By COMPULSION means you have been forced to serve as an elder despite not desiring to serve as an elder or that you avoid certain aspects of your calling because they are hard to do or you do them just because you feel you have to. Willing shepherding, however, is done out of a love for Christ and His people that reveals itself in willing service.
A. In 2 CORINTHIANS 5, Paul speaks about the task of persuading others. He says, “For the love of Christ controls us.”
B. So there is to be a compulsion that motivates our willing work but it is not an external, people driven compulsion or a bare sense of duty, but the internal love of Christ. Again, remember Jesus’ conversation with Peter, “Peter, do you love me? … Then feed my sheep.”
i. So you stop putting off that visit to a member who needs to be admonished and you go because you love Christ and His people.
ii. You take a stand at a session or Presbytery or synod meeting, when everyone else is voting the other way, because the love of Christ compels you.
iii. You get up early to read the chapter you are going to discuss with that young man later in the day, even though it is cold and bed is warm, because you love Christ and His people.
C. The elder shepherds the flock, willingly.
2. And secondly, “NOT FOR SHAMEFUL GAIN” speaks of the elder who serves thinking he can make some money out of his office.
A. Earlier we read from Isaiah 56. And that passage is typical of others in which the Lord rebukes the leaders of the Jews for getting rich at the expense of the poor. This is the language the Lord used, “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all.”
B. Well, if you have travelled to Europe, you have probably seen the golden cathedrals and ornate bishop’s palaces built from the penance coins of the poor. And we have probably heard tales of those TV preachers with mansions and corporate jets. The Apostle Paul, however, even though he defended the right of ministers to receive recompense for their labours in the gospel, refused to receive anything himself.
C. The Christ-like Shepherd does not need personal wealth to motivate him; he should serve eagerly.
3. And finally, “NOT DOMINEERING OVER THOSE IN YOUR CHARGE” or “not lording it over them” presents us with the picture of the elder who is a bit of a bully.
A. You may remember from our Mark studies that at one time James and John came to Jesus wanting to have the seats of honour in Jesus’ kingdom. And when the other disciples heard about this, they were upset because of course they wanted those honoured positions. But Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
i. It is possible, you see, to function as an elder in an oppressive, intimidating kind of way.
ii. It is possible to believe that you are above the criticism of members of the congregation or your fellow office-bearers.
iii. It is possible to use the office to demand conformity on matters which the Bible allows for some freedom on. But this should not be.
B. We elders are instead pointed to the Lord Jesus who having said those words to the disciples that I quoted a moment ago, went on to say, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” And so, as we elders look to the example of Jesus, the end of v3 tells us that we should be “EXAMPLES TO THE FLOCK.”
i. The sheep should see a reflection of the Good Shepherd in us.
ii. Our commitment to Christ as it is evidenced in things like personal devotions and reading to be equipped and attendance at the worship services and Bible studies and prayer meetings and AGMs, etc, the way we love our wives, the way we raise our children, our commitment to hospitality and the discipling of others, our willingness to serve others and to esteem them more highly than ourselves, though it will not be perfect, ought to be such that we can say, as did the Apostle Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
These then are the CHARACTERISTICS REQUIRED of the elders. They are to serve willingly, eagerly, and as examples to us. This is how our elders should shepherd us.
So finally and briefly, then, that brings us to the CONCOMITANT. And a concomitant is “an event or situation that happens at the same time as or in connection with another.”
The Scriptures require an awful lot of the shepherds. But they require a lot, also, of the sheep. The things we have considered this afternoon have implications for us as sheep as well as for the shepherds.
• And in our system of selecting elders, this begins before they come into office. In Acts 6, when there was a need for men to serve in the church, the congregation was told to pick out men of good repute, full of the Spirit and wisdom. And so, as a session, we call on you to NOMINATE men for consideration as elders. Do you do that? Do you realize the importance of having godly shepherds, such that you take the time to prayerfully consider who is qualified and put it down on some paper or send an email to your elder?
• And then comes the time when we VOTE. Now, I realize that there are differing views and practises on how churches vote for elders. But setting that aside, who we vote for must be governed by what it means to shepherd the flock by exercising oversight. What we need as a flock are wise men who will feed us and who aren’t afraid to stand up for what is right when it is not popular and who will whack us with the shepherd’s crook when we need it. What we can be tempted to vote for, however, is nice men; popular men; easy to get along with men. So again, prayerfully ask the Lord to help you vote for men who demonstrate, already, the characteristics of a shepherd.
• But once we have elders, as we do today, the last part of this concomitant is found in HEBREWS 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
Elders are to shepherd the flock by exercising oversight. They are to do this willingly, eagerly, and as examples to us. May the Good and Chief Shepherd equip them to serve in this way among us and may we pray for them and submit to them that their work might be a joy. Amen.